The aptly named cauliflower mushroom, Sparassis crispa, is named for its unique shape, which resembles the common vegetable. From a glance, the cauliflower mushroom can even be mistaken for its namesake.
However, upon closer inspection, many claim that this elusive mushroom’s fruiting body more closely resembles clusters of noodles or coral, which lends to a few of its nicknames, such as noodle fungus or coral mushrooms. Only when sliced in half, does this fungus resemble cauliflower florets.
Sparassis crispa, more commonly called the Cauliflower mushroom, are saprobes and grow near the roots of trees. They are parasitic in nature, causing brown rot, and have no poisonous lookalikes, making them a safe mushroom for beginning foragers – provided that the elusiveness of this fungus doesn’t discourage them.
Fast Facts about Cauliflower Mushrooms
- As any mushroom hunter will tell you, it is incredibly hard to find cauliflower mushrooms. While they tend to sprout up in the same spot year after year, they are sensitive to drought and won’t sprout if there hasn’t been enough rain.
- Western varieties of Sparassis are found at the base of pine trees, while eastern varieties can be found at the base of hardwoods.
- While cauliflower mushrooms are saprobes, they are not very strong parasites, and trees can live for many years while supporting several fruiting bodies of the fungus each year.
- Unlike many other species of edible mushroom, cauliflower mushrooms can be cultivated.
- The cauliflower mushroom was discovered in the late 1700s by Austrian botanist Franz Xaver Freiherr von Wulfen, who came across the fascinating fungus while exploring the Austrian Alps.
- The common name “cauliflower mushroom” wasn’t coined until 1921 by Swedish mycologist Elias Magnus Fries.
- The fronds of the cauliflower mushroom aren’t brittle as they appear. In fact, the mushroom has been described as firm and pliable, similar to cartilage.
- These fungi can grow quite large, the largest reported having been over 100 lbs.
- While these mushrooms are loners and don’t grow in groups or patches, even one is enough to provide a hearty meal. Even a small cauliflower mushroom can weigh a pound or more, providing more than enough to cook an excellent recipe that showcases this spectacular fungus.
- Cauliflower mushrooms contain properties that are thought to help prevent tumor growth and boost the immune system.
Why Are They Called Cauliflower Mushrooms?
The genus term Sparassis is derived from a Greek verb meaning “to tear.” This is in reference to the irregular fronds of the fruiting body, which appear torn. Crispa means curled or finely waved, which are perfect adjectives to describe the noodle-like folds of the fungi’s cap.
While crispa sounds like it would describe crispiness, the cauliflower mushroom is pliable rather than brittle.
Cauliflower mushrooms are named for their large white fruiting bodies, which can have some pale yellow, pinkish, and light brown variations, especially on the edges of the fronds.
Other Names for The Cauliflower Mushroom:
- Wood cauliflower
- Cauliflower fungus
- Brain fungus
- Coral mushrooms
- Noodle fungus
How Do I Identify Cauliflower Mushrooms?
When young, these mushrooms are whiter with little browning or yellowing. They develop a golden brown hue and darken along their fronds as they age.
Their pale color makes this mushroom easily to spot against the dark forest floor.
The cauliflower mushroom’s fruiting body is composed of flattened lobes that range in color from white, cream, golden brown, light brown, and even pale gray.
While the cauliflower mushroom lacks a stem, it has a single cordlike root that extends down into the soil.
Like many other mushrooms, this fungus has flattened lobes with tiny pores instead of gills.
Sparassis crispa usually have a diameter of between 4 and 16 inches, though there are reports of some that have grown much larger.
On average, cauliflower mushrooms weigh between 1 and 10 pounds, though the largest cauliflower mushroom on record weighed more than 100 pounds.
Despite the addition of crispa in the name, which implies crispness and brittleness, this mushroom is pliable yet firm, with a texture similar to cartilage. When young, these mushrooms are tender and flexible while they grow stiffer and tougher with age.
The pale yellow spore print is visible only in large quantities; otherwise, it is colorless.
The growing season for the cauliflower mushroom, Sparassis crispa, depends upon the environment. The growing season in Europe, California, and the southwestern United States is generally between December and March.
In the Pacific Northwest, cauliflower mushrooms can start sprouting as early as October or November. However, Sparassis crispa on the east coast of the U.S. typically have a growing season of between July and October.
Regardless of when they start sprouting, cauliflower mushrooms generally have a growing season of about three months.
The Sparassis varieties native to the western U.S. and Europe are found in the forest at the bases of coniferous trees, such as Douglas fir, spruce, and Ponderosa pine.
However, the varieties found along the U.S.’s east coast grow on hardwood trees.
Are There Different Cauliflower Mushroom Species?
There are five known Sparassis species native to both Europe and North America.
The cauliflower mushroom Sparassis crispa is found throughout heavily wooded regions in North America and Europe. The name is often the umbrella term used to refer to all the Sparassis varieties.
Associated with Ponderosa pine trees and other coniferous trees east of the Great Plains in the southwestern U.S., such as Arizona, New Mexico, and California.
This cauliflower mushroom species grows in the northwest Pacific and is most commonly found near spruce trees and Douglas firs.
In recent years, molecular analysis has confirmed that S. radicata is, in fact, a different species than the others on this list. However, given its similarity and edibility, it is often lumped in with other Sparassis species.
Native to the eastern United States and Europe, with a growing season of July through October. In Europe, it appears in heavily wooded or mountainous regions throughout Europe, including Belarus, Ukraine, Britain, and Ireland.
Individual fronds of the S. spatulata aren’t as wavy or curled as other species and are straighter.
Do Cauliflower Mushrooms Have any Lookalikes?
There are no poisonous mushrooms that resemble any of the Sparassis varieties.
A lookalike of the cauliflower mushroom, this species is quite rare and can be found from South Carolina, southern Missouri, and has even been spotted in Brazil.
Hen of the Woods (Grifola Frondosa)
With tight, ribbon-like folds that resemble coral, it is easy to see why this polypore can be mistaken for the cauliflower mushroom. They have the same structure and are also a choice edible mushroom.
While most hen of the woods varieties are gray or brown, they can also come in yellow or golden brown, which can be mistaken for older cauliflower mushrooms.
They grow near the base of deciduous trees such as maple and oak, differing from the cauliflower mushroom’s preferred pines. While hen of the woods is native to both Europe and North America, it also grows throughout Asia and is a popular culinary addition in China, Korea, and Japan.
Black-Staining Polypore (Meripilus Sumstinei)
The flattened lobes of this bracket fungus resemble the petals of a large rose than the cauliflower mushroom, but the two might appear similar at a distance. The black-staining polypore has fan-shaped caps that turn black when cut or touched, hence its common name.
The black-staining polypore has a similar growing season to the eastern cauliflower mushroom (Sparassis spatulata) but prefers deciduous over coniferous trees.
Berkeley’s Polypore (Bondarzewia Berkeleyi)
This large, cream-colored polypore has a growing season and coloring similar to the cauliflower mushroom. In addition, the eastern cauliflower mushroom grows in similar habitats. However, the fruiting body of Berkeley’s polypore appears in several fat, flattened lobes that resemble a large swirl than the cauliflower mushroom’s tight, coral-like clusters.
Where can I Find Cauliflower Mushrooms?
Cauliflower mushrooms can be found in the forests of Europe and North America. They can be found at the base of pine trees and prefer a tree that is worn down, such as those with broken branches or thick scarring on the tree trunk.
Can I Cultivate Sparassis Crispa Myself?
Unlike most other varieties of wild edible mushroom, Sparassis crispa has been successfully cultivated in North America and Asia.
How Do Cauliflower Mushrooms Grow?
Unlike most mushrooms, cauliflower mushrooms are loners. This one mushroom party doesn’t grow in patches or groups.
If you are lucky enough to find the elusive cauliflower mushroom, you can be confident that it will return to the same location for years to come.
Like most other mushrooms, the cauliflower mushroom is sensitive to drought and will remain dormant during unusually dry growing seasons.
When Is Cauliflower Mushroom Foraging Season?
Cauliflower mushroom season depends on the location. In the northern United States, cauliflower mushroom season usually starts in October or November and runs until January or February.
In the southwestern United States, Britain, and Ireland, mushroom season is generally December through March.
The east coast Sparassis varieties – such as those that grow in South Carolina – have the earliest foraging season of July to October.
Unusually warm or cold temperatures affect these mushrooms’ growing season, causing them to sprout sooner or later in the year than usual. Unfortunately, they are also highly sensitive to drought and will remain dormant if there hasn’t been enough rain.
How Do I Harvest Cauliflower Mushrooms?
To harvest a cauliflower mushroom, cut it at ground level and shake it gently to dislodge pine needles, insects, or any small animals hiding inside the folds.
Whether you find a large or small cauliflower mushroom, insects and debris are likely caught inside the tight folds, making proper cleaning and preparation before cooking a must.
Cleaning The Cauliflower Mushroom
Since cauliflower mushrooms grow up through the forest floor, debris like dirt and pine needles will inevitably become lodged in the tight folds. But, on the other hand, they provide great hiding places for small insets, such as earwigs and millipedes, so be prepared.
To clean this mushroom, cut it into bite-sized pieces and rinse them in a big bowl of cold water. Since they don’t absorb moisture easily, this process won’t damage the fungus.
After rinsing, lay the cleaned pieces on a paper towel to dry and slice away the less-than-prime bits. These bits will be brown, tough, or chewed on by insects.
The mushrooms can be stored for up to one week in the refrigerator in a paper bag or a plastic container.
What Do Cauliflower Mushrooms Taste Like?
Cauliflower mushrooms have a delicious, rich, nutty taste similar to morels and have a firm texture described as a cross between a noodle and a mushroom.
Their taste is absolutely loved by those lucky enough to have eaten them.
Are there Any Risks Associated with Eating Cauliflower Mushrooms?
Like all wild mushrooms, make sure to cook thoroughly before eating since there is always the risk of allergic reaction or gastrointestinal distress.
How Do I Cook Cauliflower Mushrooms?
This type of mushroom can be fried, blanched, sauteed, or baked. They are considered great for soups and pair well with red meats, given their rich, meaty flavor.
The simplest recipe involves merely cooking this mushroom in butter and seasoning it with kosher salt and pepper to bring out the fungus’s natural flavor.
They don’t absorb moisture very easily, which makes them a wonderful addition to soups and stews.
Black pepper, fresh thyme, parsley, and many other fresh herbs are also known to pair well with the cauliflower mushroom. However, be careful with choosing spices, as you don’t want to risk overwhelming the natural flavor of the fungus.
This mushroom is a great addition to pasta and pairs well with Parmesan cheese and cream sauce. Cut into small pieces and sauté over medium heat in olive oil, white wine, garlic, onion, and butter for a truly delicious pasta dish.
Countless sites are available online for those eager to try a new recipe showcasing this spectacular polypore.